Over the last few years, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of witnessing dozens of people having their first experience on an electric bike. Even though the e-bike has become a standard in my personal transportation repertoire, I always get a rush of excitement when I watch someone else experience the electric pedal boost for the first time, their eyes lighting up as they realize how transformational these bikes are. 

For a long time, bike advocates were tasked with the difficult job of trying to convince people to trade their easy, sweat-free car commutes for a physically demanding bike ride. While that physical demand can be very rewarding—I will always be devoted to the classic bicycle (and what riding has done for my legs)—it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. The number of people willing to combine sometimes-strenuous exercise and transportation was always going to hit a ceiling. With the e-bike, that’s no longer a problem, opening up cycling as transportation for pretty much everyone. 

Now, thanks to a Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits (PCEF) plan to provide incentives for electric bike purchases, thousands more Portlanders could join the e-bike revolution in the next five years. If the city plays its cards right, this program’s benefits could extend far and wide, heralding  Portland’s most bike-friendly era yet and making a major reduction in local carbon emissions. 

Last Wednesday, Portland City Council held a hearing about the e-bike incentive program, which PCEF leaders plan to officially launch next summer. The program, expected to cost $20 million over five years, will provide incentives for a minimum of 6,000 e-bikes, including standard, cargo, and adaptive models. The program will also develop and train 50 new e-bike mechanics and develop e-bike storage and charging facilities for people who live in multifamily buildings. 

E-bike incentives have been part of PCEF’s $750 million Climate Investment Plan (CIP) since 2022, when Commissioner Carmen Rubio presented her plan to overhaul the clean energy fund and straighten out its priorities. The fund collects money via a 1 percent surcharge on local sales at big businesses like Amazon and major clothing retailers, and after raking in way more than organizers originally expected, leaders wanted to make sure the money would be stretched as far as possible to effectively reduce Portland’s carbon emissions. That meant a renewed focus on transportation decarbonization was on the table. 

Nearly half of the carbon emissions in Multnomah County come from the transportation sector, much of which can be attributed to people driving personal, gas-guzzling vehicles. Using PCEF money to encourage people to drive less is good climate policy—and e-bike incentives have been proven to be very effective. 

At last Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Elizabeth Babcock, the executive director of Denver’s climate office, spoke to the efficacy of the city’s e-bike rebate program. Babcock said since the program was adopted in 2022, it’s been a “wild success.” More than 8,600 people in Denver have redeemed e-bike vouchers over the past two years, which Babcock said was helpful in “building more support for mode shifts, more bike lanes, and getting people out of their cars.” 

“We found [the e-bike incentive program] to be a great tool for not just achieving our goals around climate and sustainability, but also really deepening our engagement and connection with our community,” Babcock said. 

Babcock’s comments speak to the potential for an e-bike incentive program to create an entirely new set of climate and transportation advocates. This phenomenon has already been noted in Denver, where transportation leaders have said rebate recipients are already emailing complaints about bike infrastructure, and demanding safer streets. 

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, advocates predicted a similar outcome in Portland, and urged city transportation leaders to listen. 

“I adopted cycling as transportation back in the 1990s, before we had a lot of the infrastructure that we have today. I’m somebody who’s comfortable basically with a line of paint separating me from cars. That's not true for the vast number of people who we want to adopt cycling as a regular transportation choice,” Chris Smith, a local bike and transportation advocate, said. “It’s going to be important, if we have 6,000 new e-bike users out on the streets, that we have safe infrastructure for them.” 

Sarah Iannarone, director of transportation advocacy nonprofit The Street Trust, said though she is grateful for PCEF’s work on the program, she wants to see the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) more involved in facilitating it. (PCEF is housed in the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, which isn’t typically as involved in transportation issues.)

“I want to talk about the fact that I don’t see PBOT as actively involved as they should be in this,” Iannarone said, noting that if all goes according to PCEF’s plan, the number of people riding bikes in Portland will increase exponentially in the coming years. 

“You know what we’re not increasing exponentially? The infrastructure,” Iannarone said. “We need to tap into the existing infrastructure and capacity at PBOT and make sure these programs are rolled out in tandem.”

Portland’s transportation leaders should welcome the additional heat (ahem, community input) they’re bound to get when a new swath of cyclists hit the road. Wishy-washy guidance at PBOT, which has resulted in several ridiculous bike lane “scandals” this year, isn’t going to cut it anymore. Thankfully, this program will begin after Portland’s new system of government is in place, hopefully disentangling the transportation bureau from the political whims of the city’s elected leaders.

E-bikes can truly be life-changing transportation tools, and I’m overjoyed that so many more Portlanders are going to get to experience their power. I’m also excited about the new constituency of bike activists who will emerge from this program. I just hope city leaders will be ready to listen.